Taking to the streets in protest is not the only way teachers react to poor working conditions.
The recent wave of teacher strikes and walkouts across the United States is focusing much-needed attention on the concerns of public school educators. But what seems to many like a sudden wave of discontent hasn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, for years we have been ignoring a huge silent protest right in front of our eyes: the increasing number of teachers leaving the profession.
Over the last 30 years, teacher attrition rates have increased to the point that most teachers now leave the job before making it a career (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014). While the typical teacher once had 15 years of experience, now that number is under five, meaning that teaching is not a long-term profession for most. But we don’t view this change as a protest of or challenge to our education policies and practices. My research has convinced me that we should.
For the past several years, I have been talking to experienced teachers who decided to leave teaching, focusing especially on what I call invested leavers. These are not the teachers we would expect to go. Most had master’s degrees, some had National Board certification, and several had been department heads or grade-level chairs. They had made it through the difficult first few years in the classroom, but after reaching a point of competence and stability, they decided to leave.
As I listened to their accounts, I began to hear variations on one theme, expressed clearly by a former high school English teacher:
You want to feel like you are able to perform at your job. I mean, you want to be competent, you want to feel like you’re making a difference. And if you’re in a situation that doesn’t allow you to do that, well then all that passion you have for teaching and all that fire you have for teaching just kind of dries up because this situation that you’ve been placed in doesn’t allow you to do what is required to be a good teacher.
These teachers’ reasons for leaving did not fit with traditional understandings of teacher attrition, which often focus on qualifications (less-qualified teachers are more likely to leave), feelings of competence (teachers who don’t think they are good are more likely to leave); or school characteristics (teachers in lower-performing schools are more likely to leave). Instead, most of the two dozen invested leavers I spoke to were motivated to leave teaching by interference in their ability to do the job in the way they thought best.
Seeing exit as resistance
These teachers were expressing what Doris Santoro (2017) calls a “craft conscience.” They wanted to continue to practice good teaching, but when they were unable to do so, they decided to go. Some refused to continue teaching while having curricula imposed on them in ways that didn’t recognize their professional judgment, others refused to teach with little job security, and others refused to teach with an increasing focus on testing. Their decisions to leave, then, should be read as resistance to these dynamics.
If we define resistance only as open defiance, we limit our ability to recognize protests that may be right in front of us. Resistance can take quieter forms, which James Scott (1987) says “typically avoid any direct symbolic confrontation with authority” (p. 420). In the absence of picket lines or public letters of resignation, we have not been looking at teacher exit as a sign of widespread discontent. But we should.
There is much we can learn about how to improve our schools by listening to teachers who protest out loud. But we must also listen to the silent protest of those who quietly leave the career. We ignore them at our peril.
Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force (CPRE Research Reports #RR-80). Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.
Santoro, D.A. (2017). Teachers’ expressions of craft conscience: upholding the integrity of a profession. Teachers and Teaching, 23 (6), 750-761.
Scott, J.C. (1987). Resistance without protest and without organization: Peasant opposition to the Islamic Zakat and the Christian Tithe. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 29 (3), 417-452.
Citation: Glazer, J. (2018). Backtalk: The silent strike: Teacher attrition as resistance. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 72.